European Ryder Cup Stalwart Ian Poulter, now 41, almost lost his Tour card before rallying to a top-60 finish in the 2017 FedEx Cup. His secret? The Englishman simply hates to lose.
You went from nearly losing your card this season to finishing 52nd in the FedEx Cup standings. What have the last few months been like for you?
It's been the most intense roller-coaster ride I've ever been on in 19 years as a pro. It's been emotional, it's been stressful, it's had its ups and downs. And since I started the year thinking that I had only 10 events to make enough money to maintain my PGA Tour status, getting down to those final couple of events was becoming hard work.
And adding to the drama—a calculation error! [In April, Brian Gay and Poulter thought they had fallen short in their bids to retain their PGA Tour cards after playing on major medical extensions, but Gay's wife discovered that a points miscalculation had been made, allowing both players to retain their status.]
For there to be a calculation error after my tenth event—when I had only missed out by, you know, $25,000 or $35,000, or a number of FedEx points—and then to receive a call a couple weeks later saying that they had been calculating off the 2017 numbers instead of the 2016 numbers, and that I actually did have PGA Tour status for the rest of the season— well, that was an enjoyable couple of minutes.
Do you ever think about how different those summer months might have been if the error had gone unnoticed and you were forced to struggle for sponsor's exemptions?
Well, luckily it didn't happen that way, so no, I'm not thinking about it. But that would have been a bad situation, right? Having to depend on sponsor's invitations, not knowing whether I'm going to quite make it into a field or not — the summer would have been extremely stressful and not enjoyable. But thankfully, it worked out.
And you certainly took advantage of the situation with a great performance at the Players Championship, where you finished second for the second time in your career.
To just be playing in the Players Championship, and then to take advantage of that and finish runner-up in the event, was awesome. It changed my whole season. And it really kick-started what turned out to be a great summer.
You're 41 now. You've been on Tour for a long time. How have your goals changed?
Right now I'm, say, No. 55 in the world rankings, or thereabouts. I want to break back into the top 50. I want to break back into the top 30. I want to be in the top 20. I want to get back inside the top 10. The highest I've been is 5th in the world. It would be lovely to think I can get back into that position. So I'm just taking it stage by stage, just trying to continue the good form. The whole season's kind of evolved very quickly. The schedule has changed. And I'm in a happy space. It's good.
You're so well known for your success in match play— especially at the Ryder Cup, where your career record is 12-4-2. What is it about that format that brings out the best in your game?
I hate losing. I think it's as simple as that. I hate it. Obviously, when you're playing in a field of 155, you lose more than you win. But when it's one on one, you've got one guy to beat. So, dispatch your man as early as possible and then get back in and support the team. I love what match play stands for. You stand on the first tee. You shake your opponent's hand. You look him in the eye. The clock starts ticking. Each hole goes by. You're running out of time. It really focuses your mind, because it's a simple equation: If you birdie every hole you play, you're going to win that match.
Do you hate losing more than you like winning?
What about your opponent? People say, "Always expect your opponent to make that putt, to hit that shot."
I think the best way to play golf is to always assume that you've already kind of given them the putt. If they miss it, fine. But it's important to know that you're never going to get a surprise. If you get surprised in match play, it's a bad situation.
The Ryder Cup heads to Paris next year. How much of a thrill would it be to get back on the European team?
I think it would be amazing. Being a vice captain last time out was enjoyable for what it was: a new experience. But it's difficult as a player to sit on the sidelines helping when you really want to help on the golf course. So yeah, my goal is obviously to make that Ryder Cup team, to help Europe win back the Ryder Cup. And I'm going to be working extremely hard to reach that goal.
ONE THING I KNOW FOR SURE: If you want to be successful in match play, never think, "what if?"
The best bit of advice I can give to weekend players when it comes to match play is to never have a negative mindset. If you have a putt to win the match or close a match out, never ask yourself, "What if I miss that putt?" Never assume that you've got to go to the next hole. Just hole the putt and be totally clear on what it is you're doing. It's amazing what can happen if you're singleminded about your game.